When we talk about the best project management software, there’s no such thing as “one size fits all” or “the ultimate project management software”. The best project management software is the one that fits your workflow and really helps you get the job done.
If you own a small project-based business, you know by now that’s almost impossible to manage projects with only pen & paper or spreadsheets (if you can do it though, feel free to share your methodology with us in the comments section). It might work for very simple projects, or in some isolated cases, but as soon as the project gets a bit complicated and several people are involved, you’ll need a software or a combination of several apps (keep reading to see exactly why).
Before we move forward though, I have to debunk a myth: no matter how hard you try, you won’t find the “perfect” solution. You have to get used to the idea of making compromises, waiting for missing features to be implemented, or negotiating a better price for your subscription. You need to be wise and find the balance between what you need and what’s been offered to you.
One more thing: choosing the right PM software is not easy. That’s the reason why many companies or individuals end up using apps they don’t find useful and have to replace them after a few months or weeks. In this article though I’ll show how you can simplify this process… a lot!
Create a list of problems and needs
The first question you’ll ask is “where do I begin?”. No matter how funny it sounds, you’ll need a plan to chose the right project management software. The plan doesn’t have to be too complicated but is mandatory.
You’ll start by writing down your problems and needs. The better you understand them, the bigger the chances to make a better choice.
What projects are you dealing with? Are they short-term simple projects, or more complex long-term ones? How many people will take part? Where are the bottlenecks?
The complexity of your projects is an important factor because most of the time it’s correlated with the complexity of the software you’re gonna use. And trust me, it’s very frustrating to have to use a complex software for simple projects or vice versa.
After you put on the list everything that you can think of, sort the elements by how important they are (do not miss this step!).
“Translate” problems and needs into features
The next logical step is to think about the features that will solve the problems and meet your needs. You can’t solve all the problems with software though (Eg. a stubborn employee), so make sure you drop those first (and think about other solutions).
You now have the list of features. Depending on the problems they solve, you know which are mandatory, which are good to have and which are nice to have or bonuses (that might be useful at some point).
This is how a list could look like:
Create a list of 20 project management apps
The feature list is ready, so you have to look now for project management apps. The good news is that there are hundreds of apps out there. The bad news is that you have to sort them out and come up with a list of at most 20 apps that offer the mandatory features (and all or some of the “good to have” features).
There are directories where you can find lists of PM apps (Capterra, G2, Software for PM, etc.) or in-depth reviews of top project management tools.
Take them one by one (sort them by popularity/number of reviews), check the features pages, and see which one could be a good fit. Stay away from obscure apps and the ones that have many negative reviews.
Or, you can try a simpler alternative. You already know what you need, so why don’t send the list and ask for feedback. You don’t even need to personalize the email, you can send a bulk email (you’ll need the contact email addresses of all).
Here’s a template you can use:
My name is [X] and I’m looking for a project management app for my company [Y]. I’ve attached a document where we listed what features we need and their importance. Please let me know what features from our list does your solution offer.
Strip down the list even more and start testing
After you get responses from at least 20 companies, compare the results and pick 4-5 “winners”. In theory, these are the apps that could be the best fit.
*The “availability” of a feature comes in 3 shapes: native, integration, workaround. Native is best and the “workaround” should be the last resort (usually it implies additional steps to get the job done).
And now, the fun part begins! The majority of these apps offer a free trial, so it’s time to get your hands dirty and see exactly what these apps are capable off.
*If an app on your list doesn’t offer a free trial, it’s up to you to decide if you replace it with the next on your list or pay for it during the testing period.
While the trial period differs from app to app (from 10 to 30 days or even more), my advice is to limit the testing to the shortest trial period offered. This is good for a couple of reasons: it helps you stay focused and get a result faster, without having to ask for trial extensions.
The best practice is to simultaneously test all the apps with the same project. It can’t be a real project because you don’t have the time to take it to completion, but you can emulate one and put it on fast-forward. Even if it’s not something easy to do, it has many benefits: you and those involved in the project will be able to compare the apps in parallel, test the speed with less or more data, check usability, the level of support you receive, etc.
Create a spreadsheet, share it with everyone that’s going to use the app and encourage them to leave feedback. Picking the “winner” together with your team is much better than choosing it yourself.
How about pricing?
I believe pricing should be the last deciding factor (unless you have a strict budget which you can’t exceed, or if there’s a huge pricing difference between 2 apps that offer the same set of core features). Sometimes there are hidden costs, so you need to be aware of them.
But what if you’re out of time?
If this is the case, just stop. Postpone the research. You shouldn’t choose an app only to get rid of it in 3-4 months and go back to base #1. However, if this is an urgent task that can no longer be postponed, then check out a comparison chart just like this one from Unito. This allows you to filter top project management apps by feature and pricing, depending on your team size, workflow, and most important features.
- you need project management software for medium and complex projects
- the chances to find the “perfect” app are very slim
- create a comprehensive list of your needs and problems
- start with a list of 20 and strip it down to 4-5 apps
- test intensively all 4-5 apps in parallel along with the team
- make sure you’re aware of hidden costs